WASHINGTON — Jo Sissel can’t be by her son’s hospital bedside to comfort him. Army Spc. Aaron Sissel died in Iraq.

But her son’s best friend, Spc. Joe Gottschalk, survived a Nov. 29 ambush on the soldiers of the 2133rd Transportation Company of the Iowa National Guard, and Jo finds some solace in at least being by Joe’s bedside — and to provide some comfort and support to her own friend and Joe’s mother, Alice Rodgers.

But getting to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., from the mothers’ hometown of Tipton, Iowa, isn’t cheap — and for Alice Rodgers, at least, who has been back and forth three times already, the cost of airline fares topping more than $1,000 so far is putting a serious dent in her savings account.

Gottschalk was shot in the back of the head and will undergo at least a year of surgeries to reconstruct the left side of his face and attempt to restore sight and hearing to his left eye and ear.

And while the military paid Rodgers’ initial roundtrip airfare to visit her 24-year-old son, she pays for her daughter’s flights, and her own way home for Aaron Sissel’s Dec. 13 funeral.

“I just needed to go back for that, for Aaron and for Jo,” she said.

Now, a program launched to pay airline travel expenses of troops traveling home on R&R or emergency leave could help defray the costs for families visiting wounded or ill troops at military hospitals throughout the nation.

The program was started in November. Uncle Sam paid to fly the troops out of Iraq or Afghanistan, but not beyond designated airports in Maryland, Georgia, Texas and one in Germany.

“Sometimes, the love and support of family is the best medicine to help an injured troop recover from his or her injuries,” said U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., the lawmaker who kicked off “Operation Hero Miles,” a program in which travelers can donate their frequent flyer miles.

With a donation of 680 free plane tickets from beermaker Anheuser-Busch Inc., the program has expanded to now funnel some of the donated tickets and frequent flyer miles to families visiting wounded or ill troops at one of the 29 Fisher Houses set up at military hospitals in the United States. There also are two facilities in Landstuhl, Germany.

The free tickets will be given out first to families “in need” and who cannot afford to pay their own way, said Fisher House spokesman Jim Weiskopf.

Social workers assigned to each of the military hospitals will coordinate with Operation Hero Miles program managers to identify those families and get them the free tickets, he said.

The Fisher Houses, founded in 1990 by philanthropists Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher, feature private bedrooms and common kitchens, laundry facilities, and dining and living rooms. Each try to capture the “home away from home” feeling, said Vivian Conley, manager of the Walter Reed Fisher House.

For families of troops hospitalized from the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, the usual $10 a day per family charge is waived. The Fisher House Foundation Inc. tries to waive fees for families who cannot afford the charge, Weiskopf said.

It’s been home for the past month to 11-year-old Zacc Mitchell, who traveled from Milan, Ind., to be with his father, Staff Sgt. Roy Mitchell of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, who lost his left leg when his Humvee hit a land mine in Afghanistan.

“It’s cool, cuz there are no kids bothering you,” jested Zacc, taking a break from playing television video games with his uncle, Jerry Stoneking.

His Fisher House room of two twin beds, and still peppered with Christmas toys and decorations, is a bit cramped for his uncle, mom, and 17-month-old brother Jerrett.

But he’s close to his dad, recuperating at Walter Reed.

“And that’s what matters,” he said.

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